Parshat Bamidbar: Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney Are Sitting in My Yard

As I’m sitting writing this blog for the Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, I happen to glance out my window into my backyard.  There’s a beautiful red cardinal pecking at my grass and behind it a black crow, also pecking.  I can’t help but notice how close they are to each other when another bird appears nearby and then a blue jay…a squirrel walks in front of them.  The squirrel is literally walking, not scurrying, not running, just walking.  The birds don’t fly away. In fact, the cardinal is now hopping toward my kitchen window.  A few weeks ago, I saw a rabbit on my porch next to my sliding door, looking in.  It’s Spring and my family has taken pictures of a young coyote exploring our yard at a leisurely pace and every morning there are little rabbits playing and hopping.  I am not exaggerating.  I honestly expect some birds to fly over with Cinderella’s dress so the mice can complete the alterations…

I believe the animals think we’ve all disappeared.  I don’t think they’re doing anything new, I think they hid all this from us.  They don’t know I’m in here watching (by the way, they’re all still there, I just looked).  I’ve been noticing the birds throughout this pandemic.  Last week I asked my husband how birds view the land.  Not physically how they see it, rather, what does it mean to them?  Their natural domain is in the air and they nest in trees so they can be close to the sky but they look for food on the ground.  Is the ground their unending buffet and do they view it that way?  If so, then it is a dangerous buffet for them because we were always outside threatening them and they are exposed to predators from above when they eat (another squirrel just frolicked past).   If that’s true, then eating has always been dangerous to birds, never the relaxed trip to the buffet we have always enjoyed.  But now, the ground is their safe and leisurely place and we’re not allowed to go to buffets anymore.

All our reference points have changed.

I like to notice these things because reference points are the rudimentary pieces of problem solving.  We tell our tiny kids that if they are ever lost, they should look for the person in the ‘helper’ uniform – the police, the firefighters, etc.  We give them reference points to solve the dilemma.  When my kids were little and still learning to get to a bathroom in time, I told them that if the house they’re in has mezuzahs, when they need a bathroom, look for the room without the mezuzah.  We use reference points all the time.  Every previous experience becomes a reference point from which to judge every future experience.  It’s how we grow.

So, what happens when the reference points are gone?  I most definitely have been noticing the birds the last few weeks.  I think it’s because I have always loved Hitchcock films, so birds behaving strangely will definitely cause me to glance over my shoulder (just making sure they’re not collecting on a jungle gym behind me as I stare strikingly off camera).

And so, the movie The Birds, becomes my reference point and I love watching them as I remain indoors, incognito. 

The reason reference points speak to us so strongly in Judaism is because in order to receive the Torah, we had to remove all the reference points we knew – we had to leave Egypt. We are taken from Egypt into the wilderness, the desert, Bamidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’. The fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, is called ‘Wilderness’ in Hebrew. That’s not an insignificant difference because those two names are opposite points of view. The book is called Numbers because it starts with Moses taking a census of Israel, he is counting the nation. In fact, numbers are our greatest reference points. It starts with counting ten fingers and ten toes and lasts a whole lifetime as we fill the numbers of years we are each allotted. But Judaism teaches us that our lives and our worth must never be reduced to numbers and so the Hebrew does not reflect that reference point in the title. The Hebrew title presents the opposite point of view: the Wilderness. The name ‘Wilderness’ speaks of no reference points. The only defining feature of a desert is that it has no stable defining features. Israel must remove all familiar points of view to be open to the newness of Torah. Building the vision of a new world must happen without the constraints of the old. 

Once we remove the familiar we cease to be shackled by it, allowing us to entertain new ideas. For this reason, the wilderness in Judaism is not a place where we are lost, it is a place where we can entertain everything as new and make new choices without the hindrance of the old familiarities. Bamidbar guides us away from what threatens us–Egypt– toward what can redeem us–Torah. It is hard to navigate without reference points since we crave them and feel scared without them. Covid 19 is still a threat to so many in the world but we know our doors must start opening. We watch new reference points start to appear as we struggle with personal space defining as not less than 2 meters. How can we build community? How do we celebrate together and how can we support those who must not venture out still and for the foreseeable future.

This week’s parshah, which starts the book of Bamidbar, settles us into thinking of the stability we can now create in the midst of shifting sands. 

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Ah, To Be Fifty!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, has a lot of information about sacrifices, vows, slaves and agricultural things.  But it briefly mentions the number 50, which is the number designated for the Jubilee Year.  I can’t stop thinking about 50.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t put too much stock in how old I am.  I’ll admit, I sometimes have to stop and do the math when I’m asked.  To be fair, I do the math when I’m asked how old my kids are as well.  I remember birth years, because they don’t change, but ages change annually so I have to do the math.  I remember occasions when I was asked how old I am and I hesitated because I was embarrassed that I had to figure it out (I always know within a year or two but they seem to be asking for accuracy).  The other person says, ‘that’s ok, you don’t have to tell me’, thinking I am embarrassed by my age when I’m actually embarrassed by my memory.  I remember things that are important to me but age has never been that important to me. Except, now I can’t stop thinking about 50.

When I turned 50, a friend of mine joked and said ‘you’re not 50, you’re 39 American’ (to anyone in the U.S. reading this, we Canadians have inside jokes about the value of our dollar as compared to the U.S. dollar …you know, the expression “another day, another 85 cents American”).  The truth is, I never take offence if someone forgets my age (my father (z”l) was never quite sure how old I was and was sometimes off by decades – neither of us cared, I guess that’s where I get it).  But, Judaism seems obsessed with numbers so shouldn’t we also be?

But, it’s not all of the numbers Judaism seems to care about, it’s only certain ones, the “Jewish” ones.  The number 1 represents God, 7 is Shabbat, 8 is days for a bris, 10 commandments, 12 tribes of Israel (sounds like the song at the Seder), 18 is life, 40 is transformation, 49 is Omer, and then… I got nothing.  What happened to 50?

A full life is represented with the number 120, but we take that as a symbolic number, since some lives are full and fulfilling earlier while others can reach 120 in an unhealthy way.  It is not the number, it is the symbol.  But everything up to 49 is not the symbol, it really is the number.  So, what happened after 49?

The Torah seems to stay away from the number 50.  We are counting the Omer now, we are told to count 7 weeks of days which will result in 49 days.  The day after that (day 50) is called Shavuot. There are 50 letters in total when we add up all the names of the Tribes of Israel.  So 50 could represent the unity of Jewish perspective, which we never actually want, so we don’t ascribe any importance to the number of letters in the tribal name count.  The ‘redemption from Egypt’ phrase is mentioned in the Torah 50 times, yet that detail isn’t in the Seder at all.  It took us 50 days to journey from Egypt to Sinai which we don’t pay much attention to either.  

It’s not that there is no importance to 50, it clearly marks important moments.  So it’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s more that we don’t want to focus on it.  Shavuot is the holiday that will always fall on the 50th day but it is also the only Jewish holiday without a set date in our calendar.  We know it’s Shavuot because it’s the 50th day from the second day of Pesach – we counted.  Next year, we’ll count it again and the date for Shavuot will be determined by the date for Pesach.  The count produces the holiday, not the calendar.

What could be the reason for such hesitation around 50?

Actually, Judaism does show us glimpses of 50, which we peek at from 49.  A soul has 49 chambers, beyond that is the Divine Essence.  The world was created with 50 Gates of Reason but Moses, God’s closest human companion, could only cross 49 of those thresholds.  It is the number that exists in the world and yet we can never get there.  We seem teased by this week’s parshah when it tells us to mark the Jubilee year, the 50th year, with celebration and liberation for everyone and everything.

But today, these glimpses are all we get.  Today, when we get to the Jubilee Year, instead of hitting 50, we start at year 1 again – we never hit 50.

For example, in biblical time, in the Jubilee year, all land transfers nullify, all slaves are freed, all meadows must rest – everything hits ‘reset’.  The value of anything is measured by what year we’re in and how close we are to the Year of Liberation.  If I buy land in year 49 and one year later ownership goes back to the original owner, that land will cost me pennies.  Time becomes a variable in my economy.

One of the reasons stated for this is because God states that we only lease land, since we did not create it, we cannot own it.  The Torah says that we are residents with God on the land.  God is the landlord, we are the tenants and we all live together.  To remind us of this fact, land ownership transfers back and we become ‘residents by grace’ on the land.  It definitely frames the Jewish view of the world and the environment.

But, in reality, the Talmud tells us we could only celebrate the Jubilee for a very small period of time in the Biblical era.  Once we are in the era between the two Temples, we only counted the years to 50 but had no celebration or change of anything.  After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in the 1st century C.E., we don’t even count.  And so, today, there is no practice of a Jubilee year – we stopped noticing 50.

Jewishly, 50 represents everything around us that is always one step ahead of us.  The things we are yet to explore, the growth we are yet to achieve, the person we are yet to become.  Fifty is the step beyond where we are and will always remain the step beyond where we are, no matter how many steps forward we take.

And as I have shared my thoughts on the parshah and the number 50, I have come to a new conclusion.  The next time someone asks me how old I am, I will accurately answer, ‘I’m the same age you are, a Jewish 49.’

Parshat Emor: Where’s My ‘Do Over’?

With everything that’s happening in the world today, global shutdowns and pandemics, as well as slow reopenings, my mind turns to what used to be.  Ah, remember the days we would take a walk as a diversion from a hectic day?  Remember when we’d watch the news on tv, instead of talking back to it?  Remember when…

Which leads me to childhood thoughts of ‘do-overs’.  For me, it happened mostly at recess in school.  A game of skipping (that’s ‘jump rope’ for all who weren’t in the ‘in’ crowd, skipping-wise) when you ‘get out’ and you shout ‘do over’ to get a free turn.  I’m from the generation when boys and girls didn’t share recess sports together.  Basically, a shared gender recess would be a boy chasing a girl while holding a bug, a close second to a boy hitting a girl in the arm because he liked her.  But even though we didn’t share games at recess, I’m not sure the boys had ‘do overs’ in their soccer or football games.  I don’t mean a disputed foul play that needs to be replayed because it can’t be decided, I mean you clearly lost your turn because you failed but the ‘do over’ gets you a free turn to…well…do it over.  Essentially, it’s an act of grace granted by your peers.  But fair is fair, you only got one ‘do over’ per game, or per recess, or per whatever the owner of the skipping rope determined.  Amazing how much theology occurs at recess.

So, sitting at home, thinking of what was ordinary just a few months ago, I ask myself if I could think of ‘do overs’ in my life.  Here are some of the first things that come to mind:  my sister and I tried sneaking into the house once after being out with friends long after we should have been home.  We didn’t call to say we’d be late because we missed that window when you can call and inform versus your parents have already gone to sleep and now your call will disturb them, or worse, alert them how late you are.  Sweet spot window closes and now all you can do is pray you can sneak in quietly enough.  We took our shoes off on the porch, turned the key in the front door at record slow speed, didn’t turn on any lights…except the light that was turned on by our mother at the top of the stairs because she waited up for us.  We were too young to know that as far as parents are concerned, you stop sleeping when you conceive your child and you never get pre-child sleep patterns back.  We paid the price with days of maternal silence and learned the lesson of respecting the love others have for us.  Would I do that moment over?

Or the time I liked a guy in high school in a community where young girls never initiated contact with boys.  I had two tickets to a formal dinner at our shul and thought it was a great opportunity to ask the young man to be my escort. I had checked with family first, no one wanted to go so this seemed the perfect opportunity.  I covered my eyes while placing the call, navigated through asking his parents if he could come to the phone, heard him say ‘hello’ just as I heard my brother yell from upstairs ‘ok, I’ll go with you’ and now had nothing to say to the guy on the phone.  I stammered, hemmed, coughed, cleared my throat and then asked him how he’s doing.  Not only did we never speak again, even eye contact in school was awkward (I’m blushing as I write this).  Would I do that moment over?

Personally, I would do nothing over.  Each moment of where I came from contributed to where I am.  If I remove little moments of growth I remove little steps forward resulting in a shorter, less enriched journey.  

But while I don’t want the ‘do over’, I do want the ‘do again’.  I want to be in the moment under my chuppah with my chosen partner… again.  I want the moment I met each of my babies…again.  I want the bear hugs of my father and the perfume of my mother…again.  And the truth is, I can have them anytime I want because they wove their way into me and I can spend moments with them at will.

It all seems so obvious, and very this worldly, but this week’s Parshah, Emor, touches on much of this by discussing something called Pesach Sheni – The Second Pesach.  For anyone who missed the first Pesach (various biblical exclusion reasons), here’s the chance to do it again.  Not the ‘do over’, more the ‘sorry I missed it, could I do it again, please?’  It’s so wonderful that the Torah thinks we enjoyed it so much the first time!  Not sure how many of us would do ritual ‘do agains’ because we loved them so much the first time.

And that’s the detail that opens everything about our Jewish lives.  We are supposed to enjoy them!  Judaism should be a good thing in our lives, a positive and solid foundation from which we encounter the world.  Ritual is to open our minds and souls to various forms of expression into the world.  The moment we question why there would be a Pesach Sheni for those poor souls who (were lucky enough) not to worry about it a month ago, that’s an indicator we may have positioned our Judaism in an unhealthy way for ourselves.  We don’t want the Jewish ‘do over’, we want the Jewish ‘do again’.

The world around us will open its doors in the next few months.  Do we sit in our homes wishing for the ‘do over’ of last summer, because we know we won’t get one.  The truth is, I really don’t think we want one.  We want the open door to select which ‘do again’ moments do we want to build into the new moments ahead.

Personally, included in my ‘do agains’, is the moment I held my first baby in front of the window on her first Shabbat and told her God made it snow for her so she could see how the world can blanket in beauty.  A moment I would want to recreate for myself and others.

Parshat Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim: If Only I Could Sing I Could Be Holy

This week I heard government officials talk about getting ready to open our doors again.  Lots of different phases, many different scenarios and possibilities – depends on if we flattened the curve or plateaued the rise or squashed the line.  We’ll open the doors gradually, some of us but not others. Businesses will soon open to anyone whose last name starts with the letter Q…or something like that.  Essentially, it reminded me of bringing a new baby home.

Actually, our doors closed to expectant mothers long before the baby came home.  Not that long ago, women would enter their ‘time of confinement’ once their pregnancies started showing and they were not to leave their homes until they looked ‘normal’ again.  Those doors have certainly opened wide as maternity clothes now sculpt around the baby bump and hug the curves of the baby while it’s still in the womb. But opening the doors of acceptance for mothers-to-be is very different than opening the doors when the baby is born.

In my day, you brought the newborn home and the family cocooned at home as the baby got used to doing things like breathing.  Visitors were kept to immediate family who usually played short games of peekaboo with the baby (in Russian you say ‘coo-coo’ which I learned after trying to explain to my husband what the word peekaboo meant…just so we’re all on the same page…it doesn’t mean anything and can’t be explained in a foreign language)…(to be fair, coo-coo doesn’t mean anything either but we can all see I’ve let that one go…)

But I digress.  Newborn babies did not venture outside for weeks, if not months.  Outside had germs and inconsiderate people who didn’t know not to get too close.  With one of my kids, we took her out at 2 months old when a stranger approached her in her car seat, looked in and ran her fingers up and down the baby’s lips as she made burble noises.  The stranger was the one making the burble noises, I was the one gasping for air as I watched in horror. I quickly moved the baby away, back into the car, back into the house, not to venture out again for another month.

Opening doors for fashion baby bumps is not the same thing as opening doors to a vulnerable human being.  

So, I think about the Torah reading this week and how could it possibly speak to the news I’m hearing and the weeks to come.  Especially since this week there’s a double parshah: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei-Mot describes the continuation of inaugurating a priestly class while parashat Kedoshim contains the Holiness Code.  Most of us aren’t too familiar (or concerned) with how to inaugurate a priestly class, but we are very familiar with aspects of the Holiness Code. Things like who we can and cannot have sexual relations with, as well as the verse: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  We seem to have a mix of the ‘why would I care’ information and the ‘this is so relevant’ information. In other words, the dilemma most Jews face.

When I was growing up, I remember learning about holiness by watching all the religious movies and shows on tv.  They were all Christian. Being holy meant being a priest or a nun, and you could only be called by God if you could sing really, really well.  Bing Cosby could croon his way to faith and every nun somehow knew how to harmonize the most beautiful renditions of ‘Glo-oh-oh-oh-rious’ you’ve ever heard.  I actually thought you had to pass a singing test to be good enough for God when I finished watching ‘The Song of Bernadette’. Nuns were the only women I saw who were unfathomably gorgeous with their heads, hair and bodies covered, because if you don’t look like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, you don’t get to take your vows.  Lest we also forget that Sally Field was a nun who could fly, if she tilted her habit-hat-wings just so and one of Elvis Presley’s leading ladies really did give up fame and fortune to become a nun (great documentary called “God Is The Bigger Elvis”). This world was only for the select few and the rest of us would just have to be happy with glimpses of their world… holiness was beautiful, sensual and hidden behind the cloistered doors of Hollywood. 

I knew that Jews don’t have nuns and I fully believed Jews didn’t have priests either.  We had Rabbis. They couldn’t moonlight as lounge singers because they didn’t sing, the Cantors did that.  Christian Hollywood had no Cantors. I actually argued with people when they told me that Judaism does have priests, that’s what a Cohen is.  Absurd (I said), Blasphemy (I proclaimed)!! 

Christian holiness was everywhere.  It was special and unattainable. Jewish stuff was in the ‘why would I care’ camp and all my friends spurred each other on with ‘what a drag it is to have to (fill in with anything ritualistic)’.  Deep inside I liked the gentleness of Jewish holy things, but adolescence does not value the gentleness of very much. I quickly learned to cover up my attraction to Jewish holiness and when I learned that Judaism expresses holiness by covering things – my heart burst with joy!

The Holiness Code speaks to us of personal elevation from the mundane to the holy.  We understand that we cover holy things because they are powerful, and we must choose the moments when they are uncovered and expressed into the world.  We cover a Torah until we read from it and we cover it again between aliyahs. We cover our bodies because they are holy. The power is in the uncovering, the revelations, the interactions.  When I love my neighbour as myself, I have elevated another person to the status of my own ego because holiness is always about reaching upward and bringing someone with us.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Holiness Code for the ancient world is that it speaks of how each person can create that holiness for themselves and the things around them.  Usually holiness is reserved for the priestly class. They are the ones that need to know how to make sacrifices, how to facilitate ritual, how to create and elevate from the mundane.  Suddenly, within the ancient world, the Torah speaks of how an entire people could do it – how each individual could do it. It is a revolutionary moment.

Yet, before we delve too deeply into our personal Holiness Codes and our revolutionary endeavours, let’s remember that the first parshah we read this Shabbat is Acharei-Mot, which means ‘After the Death’.  It speaks of inaugurating the priesthood after the death of two of Aaron’s sons.  Aaron must move forward and complete what was started, devastated as he is, broken as he is.  Inaugurating a priesthood in the Jewish world of today is irrelevant to our Jewish reality but how we proceed forward toward holiness after a devastating loss is tremendously relevant.

By reading both portions this Shabbat, the message we need lies within the titles themselves.  After the hit, we move toward a higher expression. As I take social distancing walks these days, I am comforted by simple greetings I exchange with strangers on the street.  A moment of contact and good wishes. The artists and musicians offering their gifts to support others from a balcony or on a front lawn. The voluntary acts of human kindness as strangers find ways to shop for others and people continue paying workers who can no longer show up for work.  

The government has told us that soon our doors will reopen and we will all re-enter the world.  For some, it is the welcome open door of new expressions while for others it might be the gradual open door of caution and responsibility.  But for all of us, it is the open door after the hit.  

Perhaps we can take a moment to remember that the next part of the Torah reading is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code that firmly says ‘aim high’.

Sometimes we don’t want the world we left behind, sometimes we want to continue building the one we’ve been creating.

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Pooh Bear & the Pox

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tazria-Metzora.  It’s a double portion and it has a lot of information about how to identify sores that are oozing and contagious from sores that are passing and benign.  Yes, there are ways to know. They include whether or not a hair spontaneously grew in the middle of the sore and what colour that hair is (I’ll spare you any more details than that).  Buried in the material are relevant concepts for our world today, as is always the case with Torah…but with your permission, I’d rather not immerse myself in the details of leprosy and contagion right now.

AND HAPPILY, IT’S ALSO ROSH CHODESH!

It’s not just any Rosh Chodesh, it’s Iyar. It’s the second month of the Jewish ritual year (remember we have two new years: Rosh Hashanah, which is the universal for humanity and Nisan, which is when Pesach is, when we became the Jewish people).  Iyar is the month after Nisan so it is the second month of our year – it’s the Jewish February. January has all the excitement and hype of newness and February has…28 days. Nothing special going on in February. It’s about the number of days, really similar to Iyar.  Iyar is the month of counting the Omer as we head to Shavuot. The entire month is a month of counting, it’s about the number of days.

I have to imagine that’s why I always get funny messages about how Iyar is like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood.  Eeyore, the dismal donkey, the flatlined monotonic friend who cannot rise to the excitement of anything. 

And so, sitting at home in isolation these days, I’ve decided to explore the Jewishness of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Pooh bear is the innocent kid who goes to the Jewish after-school program at shul.  He can’t really see how much of the Jewish stuff fits into anything else, but in the end, Pooh finds that the information always speaks to him in some way.  Eeyore is Iyar (how could I resist?), the ‘goes along to get along’ person in the shul who anchors and comforts with their very presence but seems to always know what’s wrong with what they just saw. Piglet is the loyal bubbly shul goer who gets excited about everything and is always the first to arrive.  Tigger shows up at all our simchas, we’re not quite sure whose guest list he was on but he’s in every hora and kicks up the party to true joy. Rabbit heads the committees to make sure things get done. A stickler for detail, so Rabbit’s always worried about stuff we don’t usually pay attention to but, in the end, he’s the reason things run smoothly.  Christopher Robin is the gabbai who makes sure things are as they should be. Kanga is every parent and Roo is every toddler. Owl is, of course, the Sage Talmudist. And now, with Gopher the industrialist, we have a complete Hundred Acre Minyan.

They are all in our shuls, in our communities, in our schools and, of course, in our homes.  As isolation focuses us more and more toward reflection, it becomes clear that the Sages were correct when they said each person is a universe unto themselves.  I am the Hundred Acre Wood and they are all living in me.

But aside from the philosophical approach to Winnie the Pooh, the month of Iyar does have a beautiful and incredibly relevant voice in these times.  The Chassidic Masters highlighted that the acronym for ‘Iyar’, in Hebrew, stands for the verse “I am the God who heals you” (Ani ‘Yod Yod’ Rof’echa).  And our ancient texts are filled with debates about whether we should rely on only God for healing and medicines. Is it a sin to see a doctor?

The overwhelming response, and certainly the ruling in Jewish law, is that we are to seek the remedies of science and the skills of physicians.  The God who heals us does it directly within our souls and also by imbedding the knowledge of cures and remedies into the world and the ability to discover those cures into us.  In other words, seeing a doctor is part of recognizing God as the Healer.

But the texts also make it clear that we must advocate for our own health and healing.  When Hagar prays for her dying son, Ishmael, the angel first responds to the voice of the child – the one who is sick.  While our prayers support others, their prayers are the leading voices. 

So, in these trying times of challenge and virus, we support ourselves, we support others and we listen to make sure they are likewise supporting themselves.  When speaking of themselves, we want to hear their voice of self-leadership. If not, it is a moment of reaching out we should never ignore.

And now I’ve discussed Rosh Chodesh, I took a trip to the Hundred Acre Shul, had a quick appointment with God the Healer, bringing us to today’s challenge of illness and contagion…and Parshat Tazria-Metzora was, in fact, relevant.  

I knew we’d get there.

Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.

Parshat Tzav: The Greatness of the Grand Sabbath

This week’s Torah reading is parashat Tzav, lots of details on sacrifices.  It is also Shabbat Hagadol, The Grand Sabbath, the Shabbat before Pesach that gains elevation in holiness as it leads us into Pesach and our Seders.

…and all I can think about is Covid 19 and how life has changed.

But I draw my thoughts deliberately to the traditions of Shabbat Hagadol and I find them relevant and helpful.  It’s the Shabbat before Pesach and we first celebrated it in Egypt. Things were very different then but maybe relevantly different.  It was Egypt, the plagues were abounding and Israel was told to stay in their region and ultimately, to stay in their homes. Danger was everywhere outside the front door.  God commands everyone to paint blood on their doorposts as a sign for death to ‘Passover’ that house and yet the image of blood on the door makes it clear that to cross the threshold is to endanger one’s life – to enter the blood zone.

It hits a little too close to home right now.

And then Shabbat Hagadol steps in.  The Hebrew calendar in Egypt happens to be the same as the Hebrew calendar this year.  Shabbat falls on the 10th of Nisan this year and it was the 10th of Nisan in Egypt as well.  It’s starting to get a little too close for comfort, the last thing I need is to layer what’s going on now with the realities of ancient Egypt.

It reminds me of the old Jewish man who is lying in bed fearing the worst.  He calls to his wife, Goldie, and he says: ‘Goldeh, things are looking tough right now but I’m remembering our years together.  I remember when we first were married and suddenly our lives became hard finding a place to live’. Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, I remember when we opened our first grocery store together and we were robbed within a month.’  Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, don’t think I’ve forgotten that when we opened our second store together it burned to the ground right after the insurance expired.’ Goldie nods her head. ‘And through it all, Goldeh, you were there, every step, every moment.’  Goldie’s eyes fill and she nods. ‘And so, my Goldeh, in this moment of dire reflection I have come to an important conclusion…’ Goldie leans closer, ‘My Goldeh…I now understand…you’re bad luck.’

I’m not sure I need to be thinking about how much worse Israel enslaved in Egypt with blood on our doorposts makes me feel right now.  We rely on our Judaism and Torah to strengthen us in these moments and not deepen our sense of gloom.

There have been a lot of conversations about Pesach this year and Zoom Seders and the upside to a simpler, scaled down, more doable Pesach.  Jewish families who have never met each other are joining together to create Zoom seders and build strong lines of connection. We are the ones who did that but we did it because the Torah always teaches us to reach outward and not hibernate internally.  We stayed in our homes in Egypt in preparation for leaving and growing strong. We weren’t hibernating, we were incubating.

And now Shabbat Hagadol starts to speak to us with relevance.  It was on that Shabbat that Israel was told to make preparations for leaving.  The time spent not allowed to venture out is time spent envisioning the next step.  Ever since that first Pesach in Egypt, Shabbat Hagadol has built some of its own traditions.  There are special Psalms recited but, interesting, there is also an ancient tradition for making ‘synagogue challah’.  People would take some of the chametz ingredients they didn’t want in their homes (and in later years, was extra and therefore they didn’t need to sell it) and they would bake challah to give to the synagogue so every Jew could have a home baked, fresh challah for the Shabbat before we all have to stop enjoying challah.  Everyone baked what they could, so some challot were large and braided and some were little buns. It was all anonymous, no one judged and no one knew who was going into the synagogue to drop a challah off or who was going to pick up a challah. I can’t imagine anything that would make a Shabbat more grand.

But, we also learn that the 10th of Nisan is the day Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies in the desert.  With her death, Israel loses her ‘well’, their source of water in the wilderness, as well as her unique leadership and her guardianship.  

And so the 10th of Nisan is a day where we choose our perspective.

I will think of Miriam and everything she brought to Judaism on this Shabbat, I choose not to dwell on the loss of her.  Perhaps this Shabbat, the Grand Shabbat, is a time to think of taking something from our pantry and setting it for donation in whatever amount and way we feel is secure.

I believe our nation is full of Goldies who stand with us every step of every challenge.  Goldie is the hero of that family – of all our families – may we never be the one who doesn’t see it.

Wishing everyone a meaningful, connected and beautiful Pesach.

Parashat VaYikrah: A Rose By Any Other Name Might Not Smell the Same

When I was a little girl, my full name, Rachael, was never used.  My family always called me a shortened version of my name, and when I was an adolescent, I decided to spell the shorter version in an interesting and unique way, so my adolescent identity could think I was cool. I ended the spelling with an ‘i’ which (I have to admit) for a (thank God) brief time, I dotted with a heart.  Then I matured and dotted it with a happy face. Then I graduated Junior High and just dotted the ‘i’ with a dot. And now you know a seemingly useless (and humbling) detail about me being cool in middle school.

But, it doesn’t end there.  Throughout my undergraduate years, many of my friends knew people who knew me when I was growing up and so the shortened form of my name followed me.  I found it jarring sometimes, because my ears would hear that short form and prepare me to see a familiar face of family or friends. Instead, more and more, I was seeing people I barely knew using a personal nickname my family used.  In my graduating year, one of my professors asked me why everyone calls me by a child’s name when the name ‘Rachael’ is so beautiful.

From then on, I became involved in who would call me ‘Rachael’ and who would call me by my more personal, more familiar name.

And then I got married.  My husband is Russian and I was introduced into the world of patronymics.  As an English speaker, I was shocked to see that Russian names don’t always have enough vowels between the consonants (I would stare at the written names, but my mouth just wouldn’t even try to pronounce ‘zdvkst’ no matter how long my eyes looked at it).  If you read a Russian novel, you don’t have to pronounce those names, but when it’s your in-laws…well, I think we can all see the problem. But, pronouncing the name is only one layer of the challenge. My husband, and everyone else from Russia, has a patronym: a name derived from his father’s first name with an add-on at the end.  I read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” when I was pretty young and I remember not understanding how many main characters had killed a pawnbroker, because the character’s name kept switching to the patronymic form or to the diminutive endearment form.  

Speaking of which, my husband’s name is only 5 letters long, but his Russian diminutive nickname of endearment is 9 letters long, because it will change and then add ‘ushkah’ at the end.  We have been married for over 30 years and he still insists that’s a diminutive version of his name. I keep saying it’s an endearment, but it can’t be a diminutive if it’s actually longer than the original name.  He keeps insisting I’m wrong… (between you and me, I don’t think ‘diminutive’ means the same thing in Russian).

As time went on, we named our children.  One of our daughters is named ‘Chava’. When she was a baby, her brother’s friends would serenade her by singing ‘Hava Nagilah’.  I didn’t have the heart to tell their sweet faces that her name isn’t ‘Hava’. For a while, other of their kindergarten friends asked why the baby was named after bread (challah).  Years later, her niece began calling her ‘Huga’ and it stuck because it has the word ‘hug’ in it. Now we can call her ‘Huga’ and it’s a sweet moment, but we would all be taken aback if anyone outside the family were to call her that.  We would feel they were taking liberties.

And, the real question is, why am I explaining all of this?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYikrah begins the third book of the Torah.  The Hebrew word ‘vayikrah’ means ‘and he called’. In this case, it is God calling to Moses.  While we are all reading this, anxious to hear why God is calling to Moses, the Midrash is more concerned with why God is calling him ‘Moses’ at all.  Why that name?

The Sages tell us that Moses has 10 names which they then list with prooftexts.  The one his biological mother gave him is ‘Tuvyah’ which means God is good. It’s a lovely name, but no one will ever call him that.  The name ‘Moses’ was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter, herself nameless in the Torah.

The Midrash that tells us all this also gives Pharaoh’s daughter a name: Batya, which means daughter of God.  The reason God chooses that name for her is because God said to her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son.  You are not My daughter, but I will call you My daughter.” We know that names reflect our essence and so God has said to her that the kindness you have shown to someone so foreign to you is reflected in your essence and now embodied in your name.

And why does God always call Moses with the name she gave him?  The Sages explain that while all Jews are born into a home where they are taught about God and Divine discourse, Pharaoh’s daughter was not.  She had to seek, find and ultimately choose to affirm the things that Torah affirms – to secure life. The Midrash says that God explains: ‘because she chose Me, I choose to use the name she chose’.  To God, he will always be Moses. 

And so, in these challenging global times, as illness has spread, quite literally, blowing in the wind, the names we use are crucial.

World leaders have named this challenge “a time of war”.  We are ‘engaged in a battle’ and we therefore now think of our homes as our bunkers.  We understand why leaders might choose those names and that language. They must quickly find a way to get millions of people to change their behaviours and so the names and the language heads to the extreme.  But, that does not mean we must choose to use those names in our homes or in our conversations. Rather than calling it ‘war’, perhaps we call it ‘security’. 

God rewarded Batya with her name because she sought a way to secure life.  We honour both her and God by still calling the baby she saved ‘Moses’. We learn that life is to be secured regardless of age, gender, nationality or faith.

So, this Shabbat our tables may have less seats around them, as members of our family stay safely in their homes.  We thank everyone who is staying home for securing themselves and securing us, as our minds are somewhat eased because we know they are staying safe. 

To me, Pharaoh’s daughter holds a special place for teaching us such a bold and relevant message.  She has influenced me personally. Her actions and God’s responses open new ways to frame what is happening around us and to enter Shabbat with a feeling of calm and security.

If she were here, I would invite her to call me ‘Rachi’. For her, I would even dot it with a heart.

Parshat Vayakhel – Pekudei: COVID 19 is a Coin with Two Sides

This has been a week of disorientation and suspension of norms.  It is not a week of chaos, but it is a week of disorganization. Sitting together presents possible danger for each other’s health while the comfort of a hug from a loved one invokes an immediate question of safety for one another.  Personal space is now extended to 2 meters distance and since it’s after Purim…we’re all wondering how we do Pesach this year.

So, here are some wonderful Jewish moments that have occurred.  

A news agency has reported that an Israeli opera singer stands in the street outside her father’s building where he is isolated and sings opera to him from the sidewalk.  Her music fills the air and though directed to her father, the neighbourhood is quiet as everyone listens. They are all transformed. I can only imagine what her father is feeling, his pride, his love, his tears.

A mother of 4 young children in Israel goes into her car so she can privately rant and yell at her children’s teachers for non-stop online messages about schoolwork and homework.  She is beautifully honest and hilarious in her exasperation as she accuses the teachers of setting her up to look like an idiot (her words) to her kids because she can’t help them with all their math and science questions.  How dare they?!? She finishes her rant (which she has videotaped to send to the teachers), thanks them because now she feels better and wishes them all a great day! The video is titled ‘If coronavirus doesn’t kill me, distance learning will’.

And here are some wonderful global moments that have occurred.

In Spain, people stood on their balconies and applauded the health care workers.

In Copenhagen, people leaned out their windows to join together and sing “You’ve Got a Friend”.

Two little girls in Queensland, Australia pooled their allowances and bought toilet paper which they then distributed from their wagon to their elderly neighbours.

All stories of the flip side of the Covid 19 coin.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayakhel – Pekudei, interestingly, is named ‘and he gathered’, referring to Moses gathering all the people together.  They have been brought together to build holy space, those with ‘a giving heart’, those who have particular skills to bring to the table and those with a will to participate – come one, come all.

In fact, the Torah describes the outpouring of generosity from everyone to the point where Moses asks people to stop donating since they have gathered what they need.  What they need, not more and not less.

Holy space is created when we find safe ways to gather together and build something new that benefits us all. Holy space is created through the generosity of others, our own generosity and the understanding of the measures involved in giving and taking.

But holy moments are created when we choose to turn the ‘coin’ over and build the nuances that transform the world: the song we share, the gift on the doorstep, the coffee on the porch with a loved one behind a window.

This is not a time to sit in our homes and build a private bunker. This is a time to stay safe in our homes and find new ways to gather and strengthen.  God commanded Moses to gather the people and we have always taken that very seriously.

The parshah continues and describes the robes of the High Priest.  It is layer upon layer upon layer of clothing and metal breastplates and epaulets.  Let’s not forget, these are desert people so layer upon layer upon layer cannot be easy to wear.  The High Priest also has little pomegranates and bells on the hem of his clothing. So, I can always hear my High Priest if he’s walking up behind me and then I can see the gems, the gold, the purple and blue and red garments.  What I won’t see is the man inside.

The Torah has clearly described a station, not a person.  No High Priest should bring his human interpretive side to the job.  I want my High Priests to always obey all the same rules so there is no difference between them.  I always want to see the office he holds, not the person inside.

And this week, I understood why.

During one of the news conferences, a representative of the Ministry of Health was updating on COVID 19 in Canada.  She clearly hadn’t slept much and seemed a bit more frazzled since the last time I watched her press conference. But this time her voice quivered, her eyes teared and she had to stop speaking for a moment.  I no longer saw the Ministry of Health, I saw her. I felt for her and I was rattled. 

The Torah, in its wisdom, reminds us that sometimes we should see only the Office and wait to extend our hearts to the person holding the position.  

All new moments of choice and discipline with only good intentions.

May there be speedy recovery to those who are ill and strength to those who are vulnerable. 

Invitation:

Food for Our Neshamah, Coffee for Me

Beginning Monday, March 23rd, I invite you to start your day with me online, as we share some of the positive stories from around the world. Let’s have coffee together in a new way and exchange these heartfelt and courageous stories from people who are responding to today’s challenges beautifully. 

Every weekday morning at 9 am (EST), join me in a new online community for positive sharing with our coffees. I invite you to come on in using this link: https://zoom.us/j/522368264 or viewing our Facebook page.  Don’t be afraid to have your coffee in a mug with a funny or special message; I’d love to hear the story behind it.

As we navigate the global spread of COVID 19, we can’t predict what the news will bring or what the next challenge might be, but we can start our day together, face to face online, in conversation and community. 

I look forward to welcoming you on Monday.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young…Calf

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, is filled with the definitions of Jewish art.  We don’t often think Judaism is filled with artistic expressions because we’re not allowed to make graven images…or images of God…or images of things that others worship as God…so, anything.

But we forget that most of Jewish expression is actually artistic.  We don’t read the Torah, we sing it. We sit at our Shabbat tables and sing blessings for wine and bread.  We even get creative with sculptures when we braid challah – 3 strand braids or 4 strand braids or twisted or round – it seems trivial, but we all love a beautiful challah.  

We are created with artistic souls, as proved by our kids.  All children are artistic and only colour inside the lines to please the adult world.  There are no lines constraining their artistic thinking. Several of my kids decided to express their artistic passions in our home, specifically in the wall to wall carpet.  I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being quite literal. One of my daughters noticed the carpet looks different if you brush it up or brush it down. She discovered her preferred artistic medium.  The carpet of an entire floor would be used to show grand portraits of cities or people that resulted from her moving her fingers through the carpet. It was beautiful, I beamed with pride, how creative, how artistic…how tremendously inconvenient!  If anyone walked on the carpet, we risked disturbing her masterpiece and no amount of explaining could move her artistic soul one bit. We all had to walk around the edges of the rooms. Artists can be very headstrong.

One of my sons did a similar thing with pennies lined up on the carpet (he loved the colour contrast) and towers and citadels built with pennies (he preferred the 3D approach to art and I gained incredible insight as to how a Roman army would lay siege to a city).  Usually a jar of pennies was a good idea – rookie mistake. Same problem with the carpet, same problem walking in the rooms. 

I’d had enough when I walked into my youngest daughter’s room one day and noticed she was lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, creating a mosaic on her floor.  Lying next to her on the floor was a pile of her hair. I froze, stared at it for a while and finally asked her if that was her hair. Without looking up, without breaking her concentration to speak, my 6 year old daughter simply said ‘uh huh’.  Why is it not attached to your head, I asked. She told me it kept falling on her face and getting on her work so she cut it off.          

For clarity,  she had long hair that reached her hips.  She didn’t give herself a haircut, she only cut the part that bothered her, so only a chunk was missing.  I reached my ‘living with an artist limit’.  

We bought disposable cameras (…back when the dinosaurs roamed…) and I told them they could take pictures of their art and they could pay to develop the film (it’s better when the artist suffers).  I got my floors back.

We are all artists and our artistic visions have no limits – in our heads.  Judaism does not discuss limiting our creative visions but we most certainly are told to limit our creative products.  In this week’s parshah, we are introduced to directed artistic passion that brings others to inspired expressions of their own, as well as chaotic artistic passion that brings others to destruction.

While instructing Moses on how to create holy space, God introduces Moses to Betzalel, the artist that is inspired with the creative expression to form the articles of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  He has the skill and God will fill his heart with the inspiration. It is a passion project that results in artistic objects whose purpose is to move the observer from the mundane to the holy. It is the path, the journey, the window through which others can travel.  It is transformative.

But later in this parshah, Israel notices Moses is late coming down from Mt. Sinai.  We’re never quite sure how being punctual became the definition of Jewish behaviour, certainly that didn’t continue to inform our Jewish identities, yet, somehow, all of covenant is going to sit on Moses being late.  He’s only perceived as late, he’s not really late because he never said what time he’d be back…but I digress.

The mob turns to Aaron and demands he make them a god.  According to Aaron, he gathered gold, threw it into the fire and (poof) out came a calf.  It is the description an artist would give of how the art forms itself as inevitable, the artist is but the instrument.  

While God is teaching Moses how holy space is created through the inspired heart of an artist, Israel is demanding that Aaron create a profane object through mob pressure and fear.  While God shows that the creativity of an artist can transform any moment into a meaningful one, Aaron creates something that transforms those moments into ones of betrayal and chaos.  Juxtaposed examples of Jewish art and the power to transform.

Artists must express their passion, they are driven, they are inspired, but Jewish art is the result of transformative intent.  Judaism commands us to engage with Torah, its concepts, its ideas, its values. We do not read, memorize, rinse and repeat. Engagement means we creatively explore, interpret and share.  The pinnacle of text study is to create a ‘hiddush’, a newness, another doorway through which to explore a new thought, a new artistic moment. We create conceptual artwork that contains a spark of our being and we passionately debate and defend our artistic interpretations.  Pluralism is hard because we’re trying to get Picasso and Van Gogh in a room together and have each credit the other’s vision as equal to their own.

So, embrace the artist within you, celebrate your childrens’ artwork, fill your fridge with your grandkids’ beautiful drawings as they beam with pride.  When it comes from a giving heart with a transformative intent it opens the door to a new meeting place of meaning. When it feeds fear and panic, when it results from opportunistic intentions, it is the betrayal of a nation, a faith and each other.